Once again time has flown by and I have written nil. There is so much time yet so little time for me to sit down and write. I have been brainstorming ideas to follow up my Thanksgiving blog and all I can think of is a theme around adapting. China really is a double-edged sword for me; there are days I genuinely cherish my experience and everything around me, and the days where I wonder just how China could be such an up and coming power. I guess there are different priorities that run through our minds. It seems we have different definitions of what “common sense” is, different rules for how to behave. I have had this conversation with some of my business students and we all agree that education really is the underlying need for a sustained change. Without education there is no spark for change, no motivation to evolve and grow. I have found myself becoming more accustomed to some aspects of this culture, while further from other parts of it. However, it is important I remain cognizant that I too am a student and in my studies I am bound to encounter challenges. Here is what I have been learning to adapt to…
1. Sleeping on Bedrock
The whole inspiration for this blog took place one morning around 2 am. I was lying in bed reminiscing about home. Over the years I have learned it is really nice when you can have something you truly appreciate in your life every day. I have two things, my car and my bed (Being from California it seems we spend a lot of time in both!) Anyhow, I was remembering how it used to feel to fall into bed and snuggle into my flannel duvet/down comforter and crisp thousand-count sheets. I then fast-forwarded to my arrival here in China. Six months ago I could barely get to sleep because the bed was so hard. It was as if someone had placed a thin sheet over a 2 by 4 and called it a bed. I may as well have been sleeping on the ground. For about 2 weeks I would steal the cushions from the couch and walk them to my room on the second floor. However, somewhere along the way I adapted. I began sleeping my usual 8 hours. I thought to myself, how many other things have I learned to live with while living abroad?
2. Traveling, Getting Lost and Making Friends
A few weeks ago I decided to travel to Yangshuo, a small town just outside of Guilin in Guanxi province. It is known for its enormous and uniquely shaped limestone mountains that covet the entire region. These are the same mountains depicted in a lot of tradition Chinese art, the misty mountains with small temples clinging to cliff sides. I was in for a treat to say the least.
I finished work Sunday around noontime and headed towards the train station. The train station in Guangzhou was comparable to the largest herd of human sheep I have ever seen. It was amazing to see so many people fit into such a small entrance, the bottleneck indeed. I made it through the 3 checkpoints and had a beer to congratulate my self. I was to board an 11-hour train ride northwest of Guangzhou.
The journey to Yangshuo was awesome. I had another beer on the train and began conversing (as much as possible) with the people on the train. Before I knew it I had made many friends. By 12 am everyone was asleep except the train attendants. I sat down in the train restaurant and was bombarded with questions from 6-8 attendants and chefs. In China, there is a simple conversation that will most likely take place if you begin conversing. I will get into this a little later. After my long conversation I walked to my room and climbed to the top (3rd) bunk more than 14 feet high. It was like an adult sized jungle gym getting into bed…
I arrived the next day in Guilin and quickly caught a cheap bus into Yangshuo. When I arrived I found my hostel, met some of my new roommates and rented a bike. I was told to go a few miles up the road and take a left. There was a bridge that I would cross and a “trail” that would lead me back to the town. When I arrived I was bombarded with people trying to sell me bamboo rides down the river but I wouldn’t have it, I was exploring. I met a nice Dutch dude at the bridge and we decided it would be best to combine efforts. It was a misty day, the mountains looked ominous as the fog blanketed through.
The path started off ok. We meandered through a wide trail that stuck fairly close to the river. After 15 minutes the trail disappeared. All of the sudden I was in real rural China. There was nothing around me but farmland, villages, water buffalo, and rice patties. The path had turned into a 6-inch dirt rut that we were to follow for the next 2 and a half hours. In and out of people’s back yards and across beastly animals I finally felt I was experiencing the China I had envisioned months before. I knew this was out there but I was restricted by the structures of city living. Although completely lost and at the mercy of the many people we asked for directions we discovered a paved road. The road went on for a bit and then disappeared again. This was to happen for several hours until we found a highway. It was there we made our way safely home. During this time I gained a whole new appreciation for paved roads and proper signs.
Later that night I had dinner with my roommates. The hostel I stayed in prepared a home cooked meal for us and we sat around like a family, one big foreign mix up. There were 2 Belgians, 2 Aussies, a Brit, a German, a Chinese girl, a Spanish woman and 2 of us Americans. We all shared our days and had good conversation. So convenient that English is the common language…
After dinner the Belgians, the Brit and I left to a special rooftop bar situated in the middle of town. The bar is called Monkey Janes and has a radical 360 view of the entire town. At night in Yangshuo, the giant limestone mountains are lit up with spotlights. It is a surreal feeling walking down the street seeing the mountains, which during the day knocked me breathless, continue their visual presence throughout the night. It was a splendid night. I met people form all over the world. The bar, although not pretty and comparable to a college dormitory, has its own special feel. To go with that college feel there was also a beer pong table set up. Everyone insisted that I, the American, must know how to play because of my nationality and I was forced into competition. I have never seen so many people that genuinely excited to watch a game of beer pong. I’m pretty sure none of them had ever seen it before. In America it is usually the four idiots playing that are interested but this became a spectator sport that night. Needless to say, I made a lot of friends playing a game I vowed I wouldn’t partake in years ago. After many free games of bp we moved to a club and danced the night away. First successful night in Yangshuo!
The next day I met one of my new friends and we made our way to the Mud Caves. The ride out there was insane, I was once again at the mercy of whoever was driving us. We had a great time. I am lucky to have ventured to Yangshuo during the week because usually it is filled with tourists. That day there was no one but my friend and I and several Chinese staff. After hiking through and playing in the mud bath we made our way to the man made hot springs. I spoke a bit of Chinese with our guide who must have liked us because he let us bath for over 2 hours. It was amazing; a series of hot spring pools within a giant cavernous cave. Right on Yangshuo…
The next day I went Kayaking and met an English couple. I spent about an hour bargaining with different agencies and I got my price (When in china…) The river was gorgeous. I saw many locals with their bamboo sticks fishing riverweeds out of the water to eat. Really made me grateful to have such diversity in what I eat.
Before I knew it the kayaking was over and I was in a true medieval village from the time of landowners. Rural China really is an amazing place.
3. Same Conversation, Different Language.
Learning Chinese has not been the easiest task. It doesn’t help that A. I am somewhat lazy and B. I am in the wrong part of China to be learning Mandarin (every speaks with a thick Cantonese accent) The most important thing for me to learn is how to communicate the things I need. I noticed something the other day after a short conversation, I have learned to communicate many of the same things I would say on a day-to-day basis. There is of course, the basic “excuse me” and “no worries,” but also simple needs. I have really been realizing the significance of communication here. In America, there are so many things I say and do that are a reflection of who I am and my personality. I have had to find a way to convey my mood and personality with very simple Chinese. Inside I have not changed but what comes out of me has! There are some really funny ways people ask how you are doing. The most popular is, “Have you eaten?” At first I thought this was an invitation to go out and eat but I quickly learned it is a polite way of asking how one is doing. In the past, if you had not eaten it was because you didn’t have any money or the chance. The tradition has carried on and people still ask to this day.
Just a simple epiphany I had the other day. Its funny how the simplest things can turn on that “light bulb.” With all this talk about verbal communication, thank god non-verbal communication is universal because if worse comes to worse, I can always do a sheraid and be understood through gesture. (Also allows me to be goofy as ever!) Of course, if I am ever misunderstood there are always smiles involved. I really have learned the importance of humor out here. My life becomes so bland if I haven’t had a good laugh in a while.
I had not experienced true bargaining until my trip to Yangshuo. I really utilized my limited Chinese speaking abilities to their max on this trip I would approach the potential seller and ask their price. Then I divided it by three and that was the price I would go with (sometimes I even went lower) I came away from Yangshuo with a traditional silk jacket, pant and robe, a pair of slippers, a funny communist hat and countless postcards. It was just too fun. I would tell the sellers my Chinese friend had been there a day before and paid the price I was asking. Several times they turned me down so I would turn around and act as if I was walking away. Seconds later they would shout out a lower price and I would continue the process until I got what I wanted. I even did this with tourist trips. Both the caves and the kayak trip were given to me at a considerably less price after 10 minutes of swindling! This really is an art and can take a lot of your energy. There were other times on the trip when I didn’t want to go through the hassle and would end up paying the extra 2 US$ for what I wanted.
It’s kind of funny. My mind has totally switched over from US dollar to Chinese RMB. I really am becoming Chinese in come ways!!
5. Sleeping in Small Places
I think this title speaks for itself. As 6-foot tall western man I don’t exactly fit into everything here. Bus seats are small, and beds on trains and buses are small. I had a horrific experience when I left Yangshuo boarding an 8-hour sleeper bus back to Guangzhou. I was placed at the end of the bus, in the corner no less, next to four other Chinese men. I was not thrilled to say the least. On top of that, I was in two of the possible positions where there was a cubby about 2 feet wide by 1 foot tall where my feet and legs up to my knees were to remain still. I could barely move for 8 hours!
My experience in Hong Kong has been better than the bus. I stayed in a hostel last week that at least allowed me room to stand up and a bathroom to relieve myself. You get what you pay for here. Apparently, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive markets for real estate in the world with a square foot averaging around 10,000 $/orRMB (I forgot). Expensive nonetheless…
6. Being Alone
My journey abroad has been loads of fun but there has also been a lot of down time. I am sometimes intimidated of being alone. I truly am a social and extroverted being. In my spare time I have been reading much more, listening to music, watching tons of really cheap DVDS (1DVD = 1US$), exercising, and drawing. Recently my Mom suggested one of the best books I have read in years. It is called “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein. The story is told through the eyes of a family’s dog. Enzo, the dog, turns out to be quite the philosopher as he tells the story of his master and family through thick and thin. I don’t want to give anything away but the book was simple, touching and often prompted me to think about the nature of life.
On the less serious or deep side of things my dad also sent me a book called “Shit My Dad Says.” This was really funny and I found myself laughing out loud several times. Thanks Dad.
Living abroad has forced me to create new hobbies or pursue old ones. Many of my old distractions are unavailable to me here: old friends, my car, family, familiar sights and foods, sports (disc golf!!)…
My parents used to tell me, “you learn the most when you are uncomfortable.” I can’t agree with them more.
Watch First, then read: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QESfEd180
I forget if I have mentioned the issue of traffic in my previous blogs but this is something I still have trouble becoming accustomed to. Driving in China is insane. To have a car here is a total privilege but people don’t behave like it. Be it other drivers or pedestrians, there is no common respect for the other people on the road. It is a bit frightening. It is rare to ever see blinkers or someone stopping at cross walks. People use their horns all the time. If there is something I won’t be able to adapt to in China it’s the traffic.
Another interesting traffic difference is how people have learned to walk here. In a country of over 1.4 billion people there simply isn’t enough sidewalk space. The Chinese have resorted to walking in the streets. This can be seen in many different parts of China. Embrace the madness, but better to look both ways before you cross…
I never would have guessed but my body has actually become quit sensitive to weather changes. In the past week the weather has become even cooler and drier. I have to be careful to not catch a cold. Since when have I been fearful of catching a cold? I’m getting soft out here!
9. Big Country, Small Portions
This is just a simple note but I really have learned to become satisfied with much less. When I think about all the food I used to eat I am amazed. I think I am more amazed that I used to eat so many big meals. These days I eat a small breakfast, a small lunch (if any) and have a fairly decent sized dinner. I actually do the opposite of many traditional Chinese. There is an ancient saying here about healthy diet that says: In the morning and afternoon feast like a king but at night eat like a beggar. Some Chinese believe if you eat a lot before bed you will grow fat. Of course there is some truth to this. If you eat a lot without burning it off, where else is it going to go? =0
Put simply, I have found other ways to share my life. Thank you for reading my blog. Having your support really means a lot to me!
(Skype is pretty awesome too for being free and so cool…)
Art of Racing – humans always concerned with what they are going to have in the future as opposed to what’s going on now.
When you’re with the Flintstones, have a yabba-dabba-doo time, a dabba-doo time, you’ll have a great ol’ time!!!